Archive for July 21, 2012

Mrinal Gore: A Life of Crusade

Mrinal Gore Obituary

With passing away of Mrinal Gore, an era of idealism, struggles against injustice and selfless social service ends

By Vibhuti Patel

Women’s rights activist and veteran socialist leader, who combined her crusade for social justice and distributive justice for more than five decades, passed away on 17th July, 2012 in Mumbai.

Hundreds of women and men from different walks of life – social and political workers, women’s rights activists, trade unionists, teachers, nurses, and community workers, for whose causes and day to day survival struggles she had strived for all her life, participated in the funeral procession.

Even powerful politicians whom she had campaigned against during the anti price rise movement had nothing but words of admiration and appreciation for her simple, transparent, spartan life and unflinching dedication to her mission of serving the poor and the marginalised sections of society.

She brought the issue of safe drinking water centre stage during 1960s. In 1964, she stormed into the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) office and tore up the ballot papers after 11 people were killed in water riots in the slums. The municipal law that did not permit water connections to the slums was rectified. She is remembered by three generations of Mumbaikars as the “Paaniwali Bai” (a woman who got the water).

It was Mrinaltai i.e. “an elder sister” (as she was popularly addressed), who as an MLA in 1972, moved a resolution for the Slum Improvement Act (till then there was only the Slum Eradication Act). That landmark resolution was debated from 11.00 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next day before being passed. Mrinaltai used to tell us, “For the first time the assembly worked night and day,”

Mrinaltai and her husband Keshav Gore had impeccable socialist credentials. Jayaprakash Narayan was a witness at their wedding. After the death of Keshavji at a young age in 1958, Mrinaltai immortalised him by not only founding the Keshav Gore Trust but also making it an epicenter of all progressive, socialist and social movement activities, programmes and gatherings. Local, state level and national level progressive thinking stalwarts and change makers from different spheres-politics, tribal arts, writers, literature, feminists and environmentalists thronged the Trust.

Mrinaltai was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement as a young medical student. She gave up a promising career in medicine to plunge full time into organising the poor and the marginalised. For more than half a century and till her death, she had been involved with a series of organisations and leading protests both on the streets and in the corridors of power, focusing on women’s rights, dalit rights and civil rights such as water, housing, sanitation, education and health services, environmental concerns, communal harmony and trade union activities. Through camps, workshops, cultural programmes of Rashtriya Seva Dal, she groomed thousands of young minds to serve the society.

She was a woman of vision, ideas and praxis and a gifted and electrifying orator. At the same time she was warm and hospitable. She followed an open door policy, listened to everyone patiently and adopted best practices wherever she noticed. She is one public figure whom I never saw basking in the past glory. Instead she was eager to learn from the youngsters. Her speeches served as tonic to young activists like us in the 1970s and 1980s. My association with her began in 1972 when she visited Vadodara to do her homework to launch the campaign against price rise, black marketing and hoarding of essential goods by traders and ration shop owners.

In 1972, Gore contested the Maharashtra Assembly elections on the Socialist Party ticket and won with the highest margin in the state. As a firebrand MLA, she took up issues such as atrocities on marginal farmers, Dalits, tribal people and women. She always did her homework carefully and commissioned research, organized study circles, developed a library and documentation centre, prepared charts and exhibition for public education.

After the prices of essential commodities began skyrocketing, in September 1972, Gore was at the forefront in setting up the Anti-Price Rise Committee which mobilized the largest-ever turnout of women since the Independence movement.

During the Emergency rule, she was arrested and shifted from one jail to the other for 18 months and was kept in the prison cell along with murderers, lunatics and hardcore criminals. Once released in 1977, Mrinaltai was elected to Parliament on Janata Party ticket with the central slogan “Democracy versus dictatorship”. In 1985, she became an MLA again and took up the issue of banning sex determination tests in the legislative assembly resulting in Maharashtra being the first state in India to pass the Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1988. During her hectic days as MLA, she would call me and Ravindra R.P. at 7 a.m. to discuss position of Forum Against Sex Selection on technical aspects of amniocentesis, Chorionic Villus biopsy and sex pre selection techniques. She always made flawless and full proof statements as a public figure.

She also led protests against the entry of US giant Enron in the power sector, fought against slum demolition and supported people displaced by the Narmada Dam and slum eviction drive of Bombay Municipal Corporation.

The demise of this veteran leader and champion of people’s struggles has created massive void in the social movements and struggles for human rights.

Vibhuti Patel is active in the women’s movement in India since 1972 and currently teaching at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

Guwahati Case: Laws on Sexual Violence Inadequate

Guwahati-girl-molestation-photo-1

An Open Letter to PM by women’s groups questions the efficacy of the laws on sexual assault, the inadequacies of which may weaken the case against the perpetrators in the Guwahati assault of 20-year-old woman

By Team FI

Even as outrage is being expressed across the nation at the Guwahati mob assault on a 20-year-old woman, and questions are being raised about the media involvement and complicity, a collective of women’s groups, human rights organisations and individuals have sent an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling attention to the inadequacies in the country’s laws on sexual violence which might very well weaken the case against the perpetrators of this atrocity.

On 9th May, at 9.30 pm, outside a pub near Guwahati’s Christian Basti area, a 20-year-old woman was stripped, molested, beaten up by a nearly 50-strong mob, even as reporters from television channels filmed the assault. The police reportedly arrived at 10.10 pm and rescued the girl. The video footage shows the mob reaching out into the police van filled with armed cops and harassing the girl. The National Commission of Women panel who visited the girl at the residence stated that marks of severe injuries were found on her, including cigarette burns all over her body.

Twelve out of the mob were identified – and four arrests have been made so far – Dhanraj Basfar, a sweeper, Puspendu Das, a shopkeeper, Md Habijuddin, and 18-year-old Bikash Tiwari. Those identified but not arrested are Rubul Ali, Debo Das, a man with the surname Baruah, Dipak Dey an auto driver, Tinku Deb and Bablu. One of the main accused who is seen smiling at the video camera even as he hit and molested the girl was identified as Amarjyoti Kalita.

The accused have been booked under Sec 341 (wrongful restraint) 143 (unlawful assembly), 294 (obscene act), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 354 (assault or criminal force on a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty) of IPC. The Open Letter points out that, “At present only 2 provisions of the Indian Penal Code primarily deal with the issue of sexual violence against women. Sec. 376 IPC punishes rape and Sec. 354 IPC punishes outraging the ‘modesty’ of a woman. Sec. 354 IPC applies to routine incidents of molestation and certainly does not respond to aggravated sexual assault by a mob, accompanied by public stripping and parading. There is no penal provision to redress the harm, injury, humiliation and trauma suffered by the young woman in Guwahati when she was assaulted by a group of men, or indeed countless attacks similar to this reported from different parts of India. Yet it is this penal provision which the police and court will have to base their charge upon.  Sec. 354 IPC offers no commensurate penalty – nor is a deterrent.  It is a bailable offence and allows the Court to award a maximum of 2 year imprisonment or at its discretion, a mere fine as a minimum sentence.”

The letter points out the inadequacy of the IPC which “leaves unacknowledged a host of crimes of sexual assault. The law attaches gravity only to rape i.e penile penetration of the vagina. All other forms of sexual assault find no specific mention and fall into the residue category of Sec. 354 IPC, which trivialises the crimes.”

The Letter points out that for the past twenty years the women’s movement has been pushing for the need for law reform. The Home Ministry’s response to this was the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2010, which was welcomed by the women’s groups who organised national consultations with “women’s rights, child rights, human rights groups, scholars, lawyers etc. and formulated an alternative draft Bill…The draft bill submitted by women’s rights groups in 2010 had, therefore, graded offences into categories of sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and sexual offences, based on the concepts of harm, injury, humiliation and degradation.”

The delegation that presented the draft bill was assured of a national consultation on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2010. However, though the Child Sexual Offences Bill was passed, the Letter states that “despite our repeated reminders and requests no progress has been made on amending the law relating to sexual violence.”

The Letter demands a transparent and thorough probe into the alleged role of the media in instigating the Guwahati attack and strongly urges the government to initiate “the process of dialogue with women’s rights groups, activists, lawyers and scholars on the Criminal law Amendment Bill, 2010, by organizing consultations.”

Ram Bapat: A Bridge that Connected Thought and Action

Ram Bapat Pune

A one-man university whose thoughts and teachings shaped many, Professor Ram Bapat lived every minute of his life with extraordinary zeal and zest. The eminent academician passed away on July 2nd. He was 81  

By Vidyut Bhagwat

Ram Bapat was a thinker, a significantly different one though. He loved teaching which was never confined to the four walls of the classrooms. For more than four decades he distributed knowledge freely to students from different disciplines and many generations of social and political activists.

Bapat lived seriously in the world of ideas but, he did not create an aura of his intelligence. At times he appeared to make others great while he remained a step behind them.

Younger generation students – urban and rural were comfortable with him and he was always available to them. He explained various concepts – in his own peculiar way – which is to contextualize these concepts. He understood that every student before him carried his or her past with conscious and unconscious beliefs. His struggle was to expand, enrich every student of his.

Intellectually rich, he was informal, a one-man university through which many students and activists were shaped. Wherever he went, he would collect a group of students around him and openly discussed, chatted, and, at times, gossiped with them. He was not a judgmental teacher and never branded his students as Leftists or Rightists despite their own obvious leanings.  But he never left his ground.  He did not accept any flag, any ism, and any dictatorial leadership. He had his own solid base which was created thorough his extraordinarily wide reading and deep thinking. He was sure about himself and that is how he remained his unique ‘self’.

Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and Karl Marx were his favorite thinkers. Though not an economist, he studied the prevailing stage of capitalism in depth. His interpretation of the stages of political economies was independent. This is why Bapat did not belong to any one particular school of thought. People at times called him confused but I think he always wanted to think dialectically. While talking about capitalism and its evils, he would go on for hours together but then never preached typical moral simplicity. After the 1990s, particularly, he understood the importance of the technological revolution and sincerely believed that those who wanted transformation should also be in touch with the new technologies and even media.

Bapat did not juxtapose East and West. He was concerned about all new thought from various parts of the world. In that sense he never glorified ‘the India’. But at the same time South Asia was at the core of his thinking. He believed in being rooted in one’s soil and culture.

He never allowed religion in the personal realm. If you believe in certain values and also belong to a certain faith, his advice would be to go in the public with all that.  He had studied Hinduism and Buddhism with deep commitment. Dr. Ambedkar and his ideas of Dhamma were upheld by Bapat with great respect and while teaching he taught Ambedkar’s ideas in a nuanced way.

Bapat was known for his lack of writing and publishing. But his recently published book in Marathi titled ‘Paramarsh’ has six long prefaces written for crucial texts like Ram Manohar Lohia’s ‘Itihaschakra’ or M. P. Rege’s ‘Swatantrya, Samata ani Nyay’ are examples of his ability to understand, contextualize and explain the complex concepts.

In some ways I always found him to be more comfortable in a radical conservative framework like Bal Gangadhar Tilak.  He was always conscious of being an Indian and as an Indian he believed that a universal, all encompassing Hindu identity was needed as against and in tune with pan – Christianity and pan Islam – the dominant organized religions.

Paintings, sculpture, music and especially trekking were his passionate hobbies. He would go on explaining Ajantha, Ellora sculptures and spend days together with groups of students. Bapat had many friends but he chose to be alone. His loneliness was his choice and he it bore with dignity. Somehow he was never after power, status and awards but, his students and friends all over India have immense respect for who he was. I would say he was endowed with a rare understanding the complexities of human life in totality. He lived every minute of his life with extraordinary zeal and zest.

Vidyut Bhagwat was the founder director of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune. She has written and published extensively both in English and Marathi on social movements, feminist literary studies and feminist theory.  

Health Care: Technology on Trial?

Health care India

Opposing vaccine technology and clinical trials instead of ensuring efficacy and transparency in their process is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater

By Vineeta Bal

Vaccination is one of the pillars for cost effective preventive approaches for primary health care. Following the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation for expanded programme of immunisation of all children to reduce child mortality, in 1978, India introduced six childhood vaccines, Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), DPT (Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus), polio and typhoid. In 1985 under universal immunisation programme, the measles vaccine was added. Subsequently there have been further additions.

Though vaccination coverage in India is only around 40-50% in children by the age of one year, considering the geographical outreach of the programme, the number of vaccines administered and the number of beneficiaries, it is one of the largest in the world. Vaccination has significantly reduced the frequency of illnesses and deaths in children due Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Mumps, Measles, Rubella, and other such diseases. Life expectancy at birth has shown tremendous improvement even though, of the 26 million children born in the country every year, approximately 1.83 million children die before they turn 5. What is disturbing is that a majority of these deaths could have easily been prevented with improvement in sanitation facilities, timely medical care and vaccination.

There is limited awareness about vaccinations in India and therefore there are many misconceptions. There are many, including some activists, who believe in ‘nature cure’ and ‘nature therapy’ indicating no active technological intervention. They protest strongly against the government policies for compulsory childhood vaccination.  Most of these demands are based on inadequate knowledge and have somewhat individual-centric perspective of human rights as explained later.

Interactions with activists from diverse backgrounds bring out one significant point – an apprehension about technology – because technology related discourse uses specialized jargon, a large section of activists do not follow it. There are also, the all-pervasive feudal relationships apparent even in such movements, which make grassroot activists accept what is told to them by leaders as good, bad or ugly without developing an adequate information base or an understanding of technology.

The cumulative data from years of vaccination experience, in millions of children in the developed countries, has helped us evolve a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the process. Some rare serious adverse effects continue to affect recipients adversely. Some others like autism, which remained controversial for a long time, were recently proven as not linked to vaccination.

For preventing the occurrence of diseases in order to improve the quality of life of the people, the development of new vaccines and clinical trials to test their efficacy are essential steps. However, these vaccine development (or for that matter, drug development) projects often become works-in-progress with no guarantee of complete success.

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) based vaccines to prevent cervical cancer is a good example to discuss. Cervical cancer affects uterine cervix, the lower part of the uterus, which causes an estimated  2,75,000 deaths a year. Out of this approximately 70 per cent occur in the developing world. A study published by Lancet early this year, stated that in India itself, majority of the cancer deaths in women were due to cervical cancer and breast cancer.

The HPV vaccine was undergoing development from mid-80s. Large scale trials in various phases have taken place in the developed and developing world including India to evaluate the efficacy of the HPV vaccine. From 2008 onwards, the vaccines are commercially available and millions of women (and men for infection caused by the same virus) in the developed world have completed the primary schedule of the vaccination.

After the success of two HPV vaccines in clinical trials, with their impending availability in the market, PATH initiated a process for a post-licensure observational study in some countries including India in 2006. However, following enormous criticism and campaign from health activists, government stopped the PATH study in 2010. One cannot deny the fact that there were adverse effects observed during the trials including a few deaths. There were also many irregularities in the process – concerns over ethical issues and arbitrariness, flouting rules and regulations – that this did happen in connivance with government agencies made it worse. Besides, testing it on poor tribal girls was a problem, obtaining informed consent from teachers rather than parents was another flaw, not using well-defined feedback methods which include checking and reporting adverse effects was also a major concern. There were other sticky issues like introducing vaccine where no surveillance system for cancer screening exists on the ground.

However, the development of HPV vaccine, which may help to bring down the incidence of cervical cancer does not appear unjustified in itself. The vaccine is proven to protect from HPV infections (repeat HPV infections contribute to cervical cancer). In a span of 5-7 years, no one can ensure that incidence of cancer has gone down; it will take 20-30 years of follow-up. But the logic suggests that the vaccine would have its positive impact.

Thus, should this vaccine technology itself be the primary target for criticism or should the way in which it was used in India be looked at? Do health activists and feminists understand and make this distinction when opposing clinical trials?

If this distinction is not made, it would mean that these critics are working against efforts to develop a new vaccine or a new drug, rather than criticizing the way in which technological innovations are tested.

Perceived injustice and concern for the underprivileged define the basis for the civil society activism in one form or the other. While the individual pain and suffering of the underprivileged or the victims of injustice cannot be denied, that in itself cannot and should not form the basis of activism. When a broader philosophical view is taken, it seems that considerations for the ‘greater good’ of the society with a focus on social justice and equality, define the primary basis of the activism. At times, this may entail undermining individual human rights, as mentioned above.

With the passage of time, technologies are pervading our lives more integrally and comprehensively, hence taking an informed stand on developments seemingly linked with the use of technologies is vital for the ‘greater good’ of the society.

Vineeta Bal is a member of Saheli and a scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.

Original articles published on feministsindia.com can be reproduced but due acknowledgement to the website is obligatory